Stuart Forster looks at the impact on tourism in Belgium after the Brussels bombings of 22 March 2016.
Terrorism, unfortunately, is a part of 21st-century life. On 22 March 2016, three suicide bombs were detonated in Brussels, killing 32 victims and injuring more than 300 people.
At the time of the explosions, I was making my way from London to the Belgian capital on the Eurostar. The train I was travelling on was halted at Lille, in France, and all passengers were asked to step down onto the platform.
After a few minutes, passengers were given the option of re-boarding the train and returning to the United Kingdom. Belgium’s border was closed, so travelling to my intended destination was no longer possible.
Needless to say, the mood on the train was flat as we journeyed back towards London.
Cultural heritage in Brussels
I was planning an art-related visit to Brussels and intended to view a number of the galleries and museums. Due to the threat of terrorism, cultural institutions such as the Musée Magritte Museum and the Bozar, the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, remained closed for several days.
While travelling on 22 March we had little information about the scale of the loss of life or the extent of the damage in Brussels. It was, though, apparent that the city’s airport had been badly damaged and Maalbeek Metro station had been attacked.
Prior to choosing to travel by Eurostar, I’d looked into the possibility of flying into Brussels Airport on the morning of 22 March. Inevitably, there was an element of “what if?” in my thoughts. Would I be writing this now if I’d chosen to fly that day?
By impacting my travel plans, terrorism has had a direct and negative impact on my life. It has hit my ability to earn a living and also denied me an opportunity to experience Europe’s cultural heritage. Thankfully though, I haven’t been maimed by the shrapnel that was packed into the bombs detonated by members of ISIL in Brussels and nobody is grieving for me.
The bombs have not put me off travelling to Belgium. I hope to travel to Brussels at some point in the not-too-distant future to belatedly undertake the trip that was planned.
A response to the 2016 Brussels bombings
In the aftermath of the Brussels bombings, I contacted Françoise Scheepers, the director of the Belgian Tourist Office in the United Kingdom, to ask how members of the British public responded.
“We received many calls on the day of the attack, and we know that several groups cancelled or postponed their trip to a later date, particularly in the school and youth sector. Also, the number of information requests has dropped compared to what we normally deal with. However we received many messages of sympathy and support by email, as well as via social media. We found great comfort in this sense of solidarity and compassion,” said Mrs Scheepers.
“People were at first completely stunned and saddened by the events, but have now started to get back to their regular lifestyle and their love of all the good things in life, although there is still a need for grieving,” she said three weeks after the attacks.
Unfortunately, tourism to Brussels has been detrimentally impacted by the bombings.
“Hotel bookings and visitor numbers are down. Some restaurants in the city centre have suffered a decrease in turnover as well, although in their case many blame this on the new pedestrianised area, which has considerably reduced the ease of access to their establishment,” commented Mrs Scheepers.
Nowhere in the world is safe
I asked what she would like to say to people who have cancelled their plans to travel to Belgium due to safety concerns.
“We do understand that, however, the federal and local authorities are doing their best to secure the place. Unfortunately nowhere on earth is entirely 100% safe anymore, nowadays. Does this mean we have to be scared of living, of travelling? We think it is still possible to experience our destination, by exploring the less obvious and the less notoriously crowded places, and we are here to help discover such different types of experiences,” responded Mrs Scheepers.
The director has a number of insider tips for anyone travelling to Brussels over the months ahead: “The brand new MIMA museum, together with the existing ones, like the Magritte Museum, the Bozar. As well as the different districts or “villages of Brussels” as I like to call them, such as Le Chatelain, Saint Boniface-Matongé, Sablons and the Marolles, Flagey and its ponds and farm. They each have their own distinct character and points of interest. Small, tailored visits with an organisation like ARAU are a perfect way to enjoy the city in all its best aspects, and on a very human scale.”
“Belgians will not be any different to the British after the London 2005 attacks: we shall keep calm and carry on,” she added defiantly.
See the Eurostar site to plan rail journeys to Brussels.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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